My mom left my biological dad when me and my twin brother were a year old.
One day at the park I called a stranger “daddy,” and he and my mom started dating.
I don’t call him my stepdad because he is my dad.
I got to choose my dad. He taught me how to swim, how to handle a panic attack, and to eat my vegetables; and I picked him out one day in a park.
I remember the black chopped-up tire rubber on the ground and running ahead to the big silvery slide. I remember a man, tall and comfortable, with a big black beard and warm eyes, crinkly at the sides, rich and brown and happy. I looked up at him, handed him my baby giraffe, and said, “Daddy! Catch me!”
I had never seen this man before in my life.
He held my hand as I slide down. When we got to the bottom, my mom was there, full of stranger danger. I looked up at her and said, “Mommy! It’s Daddy!”
My mom left my biological father, with good reason, when my twin brother and I were 1. My biological father also had a beard, so perhaps this is the source of my misidentification; I prefer not to think of it as a misidentification at all.
By the end of the afternoon, my new “dad” had invited us all over for spaghetti with his two kids. We moved in six months later.
I took his name after he married my mom
A couple of years later, I was swishing around in the dry autumn leaves around our house, making that delightful crunchy sound, when my mom and dad asked me if I wanted to keep my last name or take his when they married. I was thrilled to be included and to share my family’s name. Sadly, my biological father blocked the adoption — not that he was around to be a father himself — but after the wedding, I chose my stepdad’s name anyway.
It’s weird to call him my stepdad — he’s not a step away from anything. He taught me to identify poison ivy and to wire electrical sockets; he let me knead my own pizza dough into inedibly thick mini pizzas, against his advice. He made me eat them, too, so I’d learn that actions have consequences and it’s wrong to waste food. He’s my dad.
He prepared me for the life I’d have when he and my mom separated, 12 years after I’d chosen him.
My family is my choice over blood
Their divorce was bitter. We didn’t speak for years. When things got hard with my mom and I moved into the basement, I still wasn’t speaking to him. But he showed up one weekend when I was out of town to frame and hang a door, so my room would be private. When I was learning to drive, he showed up in a snowstorm. He told me he didn’t need us to talk, but I did need to learn to drive safely in the snow.
I was too angry to forgive him until the summer before my junior year. I wrote an essay about how he’d taught me to ski. He showed me that it’s OK to be afraid: a little fear keeps you aware and in control. But if you let the fear control you, then you’re stuck, you’re unsafe. I called him.
He apologized. He accepted responsibility. Hey stepped up.
When I first came back from college for Thanksgiving, I told my mom I was making dinner, and I was inviting everyone: my dad; his first wife; my stepsiblings; my dad’s parents; my brothers; and my mom’s ex-stepdad, who showed up for her as my dad did for me.
It was our first post-divorce reunion. I was blood-related to four of the 11 people at that table, but then, our family has always been about choice over blood.
We’ve been together for every holiday since.
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